Behind the Schoolhouse Door
Eight Skills Every Teacher Should Have
Utah State University
The story is told of a boy who was seen searching frantically for a coin he had lost. It was dark.
The boy was down on his hands and knees beneath the corner street light looking for his coin. He
was very intent. A man happened by and asked the boy what he was looking for. It went like
Boy: "I dropped a coin and I'm trying to find it."
Man: "Where did you drop the coin?"
Boy: "Oh, I dropped it over there," as he pointed to a spot well beyond the area illuminated by
the street light.
Man: "If you dropped the coin over there, why are you looking for it over here?"
Boy: "Because it's lighter over here."
Like that little boy, the education decision makers of America, over the centuries, have spent
their time and energies - wasted their time and energies - looking in all the wrong places for the
answers to education's most compelling and perplexing problems. Rather than looking for
answers where the problems are, that is, in the classroom where education takes place, they have
been looking elsewhere. In fact, they have been looking almost everywhere else. With what
effect? Nothing of substance has changed. That is, the process of teaching children has not
changed nor improved systemically in any measurable way. This is a centuries-old dilemma with
which education has just never come to grips. In 1632, John Amos Comenius, the father of
modern day group instruction, in his book The Great Didactic noted, "For more than a hundred
years much complaint has been made of the unmethodological way in which schools are
conducted but it is only within the last 30 that any serious attempt has been made to find a
remedy for this state of things. And with what results? Schools remain exactly as they were."
In 1993, Dr. David Brite, President of the Children's Television Network, noted, "Schools today
are one of the few places in our society that our grandparents would easily recognize" (Brite,
1993). Modern day educational researchers have come to the same conclusion noting that,
"Teaching patterns [have remained] unchanged over the past century (Needels and Gage, 1991,
Knowing what works, and what the data say about effective instruction, I began in 1980 to visit
schools and classrooms across the United States and throughout the world to observe what
actually happens in classrooms between teachers and learners, and to ask educators what can be
done to improve teachers' ability to function successfully in the classroom. The study took me
into 252 schools in all 50 states, all American Territories and Protectorates, and 14 foreign
countries. Interviews were conducted with 769 teachers, 253 administrators, and 23 "other"
school personnel, primarily school counselors and psychologists. Observational data were taken
in 303 classrooms, of which 134 were in elementary schools, 69 were in middle/jr. high schools,
51 were in high schools, and 49 were "others," including alternative schools, private schools,
special schools, and residential schools. Geographically, 97 schools were located in rural and
remote areas, 128 were urban/suburban schools, and 27 were inner city schools. Eighty-eight
percent of the schools were selected at random. Visits to schools in foreign countries were
typically not randomly selected since there were often governmental regulations prohibiting
spontaneous visits to schools. Also language barriers made it necessary that arrangements be
made in advance.
These visits were conducted over a 16 year period (1980-1996), with results ranging from
delightful to distressing.
The findings which produced the greatest delight were that, universally, teachers are remarkable
people who are extremely concerned for the education and general well-being of their students,
and who want to do a good job serving their students. From these interviews and visits came
touching accounts of teachers who labored under immense personal, economic, political, and
organizational/administrative constraints to serve the children in their classes.
Among the most distressing findings were the frustrations and even anger teachers expressed for
how poorly they were trained at the university college of education level to teach and to manage
student behavior. When I asked teachers to rate the adequacy of their college of education
teacher training programs in preparing them for their work in the classroom, as shown in Figure
1, the average rating of all responses (on a five point scale, 1 being inadequate to 5 being
adequate) was 2.41. When asked to rate the adequacy of their training in preparing them to
manage student behavior, using the same scale, the average of all responses was 1.71. When
asked to rate the quality of the support services available to them through school psychology and
counseling programs in working with teachers serving behavior-problem students (again, using
the same 5-point scale), the average response was 1.27. It is no surprise to any knowledgeable
person in education that college of education teacher training programs are simply not - as a rule
- doing an adequate job preparing teachers for the work that lies ahead of them in the classroom
(Rigden, 1996, p. 64).
It seems doubly tragic that even though we know what works for both instruction and the
management of student behavior, what is known is not being universally taught in our college of
education teacher training programs. Occasionally, when I came upon classes where splendid
things were happening and teachers were being remarkably effective, by the teachers' own
admission, the skills they possessed which accounted for their remarkable success were rarely if
ever linked to anything they had learned in their college of education teacher training programs.
They noted to me time and time and time again, had it not been for their practicum experiences
and student teaching opportunities (which were rarely long enough), their preservice training
programs would have been "a total waste."
One particular instance, by way of example, comes to mind. Through random selection, I found
myself in the class of a teacher who a short time before had been honored as the outstanding
teacher of the year for her state. As I sat in the back of her classroom taking data, I began to
realize that it was no wonder why this woman had been selected as the outstanding teacher of the
year. She was doing everything right.
After the class period ended, we went to the faculty room where we sat at a round table to
discuss my observations. I said to her, "Well, it is no wonder to me why you have been chosen as
this state's teacher of the year. You did everything right." She answered with some surprise, "Oh,
what did I do that was so right?" I then spread the data on the table before her and pointed out
what she had done that was so noteworthy, and which accounted for her success. With each data
point, her eyes got larger and larger until at last she exclaimed with excitement, "Did I do all of
that?" I assured her she had and asked where she had learned to do those things. She answered, "I
don't know. I guess I just learned through trial and error." She was fascinated at the data, and
asked me if I would send her some materials that related to our discussion - which I did. A few
weeks later, I received a lovely letter in which she said, "I have learned more during the two
hours of our visit and from the material you sent me about how to create an effective learning
environment than I learned in college all the way through to a masters degree." Though I was
delighted that she had learned so much from our brief visit and what I had sent, I thought how
tragic it was that through seven years of college she had been taught so little about teaching and
Unlike medicine and dentistry, in which the transition from school to practice is relatively
smooth and seamless, the transition from the college class to the school classroom is abrupt,
traumatic, and confusing. What is covered in teachers' preservice training programs typically
bears such little resemblance to what actually happens in classrooms that new teachers are left
almost entirely to their own devices in knowing what to do next, "...totally unprepared for the
impact of teaching itself" (Rigden, 1996). Left to their own devices, they quickly turn to other
teachers for help, learn through trial and error, and muddle their way through doing the best they
can until they learn what works and how to survive.
This struggle to survive prompted me to look at how members of other professions approach the
solving of problems common to their professions. I randomly selected 20 engineers, 20
physicians, 20 lawyers, and 20 educators and asked them to describe for me a problem
commonly experienced in their work. I then asked them how they set about solving that problem,
including what it was that formed the basis for their solution. I also asked them if other members
of their profession would approach a similar problem in a similar way. Table 1 summarizes the
responses to those interviews. You will notice that engineers referred to laws, principles,
formulas related to force, stress, motion, pressure etc. Physicians referred to their knowledge of
physiology, anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, the central nervous system, the flow and
circulation of body fluids, etc. Lawyers referred to constitutional law, statutes, precedent, logic,
courtroom procedures, and their knowledge of the judicial system, etc. Teachers' responses made
absolutely no references to any kind of science, any body of professional literature, any
principles or laws to explain what they did. Rather, they said things like, "It seemed at the
moment a be good way to handle the situation," "I've used it before and it's worked well," "It was
suggested to me by a fellow teacher," "That is the way the teachers manual said to do it," "I was
taught to do it that way at the university," "I don't really know. I never thought much about it."
The most frequently given response was, "I just fly by the seat of my pants." Surely, as a
profession, we can do better than this. Surely, we can do a better job, a more professional job, in
preparing teachers to assume the heavy responsibilities they face in the classroom at any level.
From a practitioner point of view, teaching is an art form. When I asked principals and teachers
"Is teaching an art or a science," the overwhelming response - nearly 100% - regarded teaching
as an art; aided, at best, by science. Only two teachers and one principal responded that effective
teaching was dependent on a sound knowledge of the science of instruction and human behavior.
This is astounding!
In this regard, while questioning principals about their roles as instructional leaders (a role very
few principals related to!), I asked, "When you visit a classroom what do you see that tells you
whether you have an effective or an ineffective teacher?" One elementary school principal
answered (and she was serious), "I know I have a good teacher who, when she screams at the
kids, can be heard for a mile and a half!" Though this is an extreme example, it nevertheless
points to a serous problem in education; that is, teacher effectiveness is measured in terms of
personal characteristics not professional skills. An analysis of principals' responses to the above
question, as shown in Figure 2, reveals that 81% of those responses related to personal
characteristics (e.g., dress, grooming, demeanor), 13% were related to experience (e.g., years
teaching, degrees held, variety of teaching assignments), and only 6% were related to skills.
From my observations and interviews in schools over the past 16 years, I have identified eight
skills every teacher should have as they relate, particularly though not exclusively2, to effectively
managing the learning environment. Teachers who possess these skills are better able to create
and maintain the kind of learning environment in which children both learn what they need to
learn, and enjoy doing it. These skills are:
1. Skill #1 The ability to teach expectations.
2. Skill #2 The ability to get and keep students on task.
3. Skill #3 The ability to maintain a high rate of positive teacher-to-pupil interactions.
4. Skill #4 The ability to respond noncoercively to inappropriate behavior that is
5. Skill #5 The ability to maintain a high rate of risk-free student response opportunities.
6. Skill #6 The ability to serve problem-behavior students in the primary learning
environment (that is, the classroom).
7. Skill #7 The ability to avoid being trapped.
8. Skill #8 The ability to manage behavior "scientifically."
9. End Note
Skill #1: The ability to teach expectations
In classrooms where teachers' expectations are reasonable and clearly understood, the behavior
of students tends to be appropriate. From my observations, I have concluded that children must
know exactly what is expected of them, and what the consequences are of meeting or failing to
meet, those expectations. For expectations to serve the roles for which they are intended, I have
observed six conditions that must be met, as follows:
A. Expectations should be taught "situationally." This means that children should be taught
what is expected of them in the variety of situations and settings in which they find themselves.
For example, John Reed (1993) of the Oregon Social Learning Center found that when students
are taught exactly what is expected of them relative to their behavior while entering school and
before class instruction begins, when going to the cafeteria and during lunch, and when exiting
school, referral problems for inappropriate behavior were reduced by 40%. This means, simply,
that not only are students taught what is expected of them, they are taught what is expected of
them in the variety of situations and settings encompassed within the school day.
B. Expectations should be taught in a very formal manner using role-playing, modeling, and
practice. Certainly, such instruction must be presented in an age-appropriate way. But no
matter what their age, students need to be taught in a direct and formal way exactly what
is expected of them, and in a manner that makes it possible for the teacher to know, by
what the students say and do, that they understand those expectations perfectly.
C. Expectations should be kept to a maximum of 4 or 5. It is important that expectations be
kept to a small enough number so that everyone, including the students and staff, can
remember them. Long lists of expectations are counterproductive.
D. Expectations should be stated in instructive rather than prohibitive language. For
example, rather than "Don't shout," the expectation would be "Speak quietly." When
stating expectations, it is important for teachers to tell students what they are expected to
do rather what they are expected not to do.
E. Expectations should be emphasized over rules. Though this is a subtle matter, it
nevertheless reinforces an important point about classroom management; that is, the
emphasis should be on positive things rather than negative, prohibitive things (Foxx,
1996, p. 226-227). Expectations should be respected by the teachers. It is not at all
unusual for teachers to violate their own expectations. For example, an expectation might
be that students are to raise their hands to be called on to speak. However, during a class
discussion, a student blurts out an answer without raising his/her hand, and the teacher
attends to that student by saying something like, "Right. That's a good answer. Thanks."
True, the child might have given the right answer, but if in giving the answer, the child
has violated the teacher's classroom expectation and has been rewarded for it by teacher
attention, the probability is high that the teacher's expectations will not be respected by
Skill #2: The ability to get and keep students on task
A. I have observed that a key to on-task behavior is to quickly engage students in the
learning activity. I have found that the sooner teachers get students on task, the easier it is to
keep them on task and the easier it is to get them back on task should they get off task. In
classrooms where more than even a minute elapses from the time instruction is to begin and
instruction actually does begin - during which time students get involved in a lot of distracting
behaviors - it becomes increasingly difficult for the teacher to bring order to the classroom
environment and to get instruction started. It is important, therefore, to begin instruction
Secondly, to assure a high rate of on-task behavior, the teacher should engage in what
Geoff Colvin (May 27, 1996) calls "active supervision." "Active supervision" finds
teachers (1) moving around the class and being close to students, (2) looking around, and
(3) interacting with students. This is absolutely consistent with what I have observed in
classrooms all across the globe. In classrooms where teachers are up and around and
physically close to students and interacting with them, students tend to be on task and
productive. It worries me when I'm in classrooms where teachers give students
assignments, then take their seats at their desks, not to stand up until the class period is
Managing by walking around is a powerful antidote to inappropriate student behavior.
Regarding proximity, I have found that there is a direct relationship between how close a
teacher is to students and how well students behave: the closer the proximity the better
I was recently in a classroom for behaviorally disordered students. There were 12
students in the class. During the hour I observed, there was not one incident of
inappropriate student behavior. After the period was over, I asked the teacher how she
accounted for the fact that though she had 12 of the school's worst behaving students in
her class, I didn't observe one single behavior problem, nor were the students off task
during the entire class period. She answered, "I never sit down. I am constantly walking
among the students and interacting with them. As you will notice, I don't even have a
desk in my classroom." I was startled when I looked around to note that, indeed, she
didn't even have a desk and a chair for herself.
Skill #3: The ability to maintain a high rate of positive teacher-to-pupil interactions.
A. A basic principle of human behavior teaches us that behavior responds better to positive
than to negative consequences. Most people understand this, but despite it, there is a strong
tendency on the part of classroom teachers to attempt to manage the classroom environment
coercively. There remains a strong inclination among teachers, particularly - though certainly not
exclusively - above the third grade, to espouse the philosophy that you must never smile 'til
Christmas - at the earliest.
I recently gave a talk to a large group of school teachers and administrators on the topic
of non-coercive, positive methods of classroom management. Afterward, I received an
anonymous note from a high school teacher. It read in part as follows: "Dr. Latham is a
fine, funny, intelligent little gentleman (I liked that part) whose policies would work if
tempered with severe punishment to stop the inappropriate behavior, with behavior
modification techniques used afterward. There are no rewards for not running a stoplight
- there's only punishment if you do run the light. That's reality" (emphasis not added).
This mentality is destroying the quality of learning environments all across America,
creating coercive environments from which students want to escape. As noted by Dr.
Murray Sidman in his marvelous book Coercion and It's Fallout (1989) "Many students
would leave school immediately if they had the choice." The fact of the matter is, about a
million students a year do leave school, whether given the choice or not. They are called
dropouts. And why do they leave? They leave because, in large measure, school
environments, particularly at the upper grades, are becoming more and more coercive, a
circumstance that encourages students to escape and avoid.
This sad situation exists not only in the secondary grades. Recently, a distraught woman
in our community who volunteers a few days a week in a nearby first-grade class, called
about her concern over all the "shouting and scolding and criticizing by teachers that goes
on continually, even in kindergarten classes." The distraught parent of a second grade
student called me wondering what she should do: "My son tells me every day he wants to
die because his teacher is so mean to the students." A similarly distressing call came to
me from the mother of a 15 year-old girl.
My data reveal that teachers allow over 90% of all of the appropriate things their students
do to go unrecognized; yet, when student misbehave, teachers are 2 to 5 times more
likely to pay attention to that behavior than they are to pay attention to appropriate
behavior. Since teacher attention is one of the major variables that accounts for how
students behave, the attention given by teachers to inappropriate behavior is typically of
such a nature as to increase the probability that the inappropriate behavior will be
strengthened; i.e. it will occur again and again and again predictably.
Conditions are even worse for students who are "different." A group of researchers
reported that 82% of students who are developmentally delayed never receive positive
feedback from teachers even when they comply with teacher requests, and that teacher
disapproval statements directed at such students outnumber approval statements by a
ratio of 15 to 1 (Shores, Gunter, and Jack, 1993).
Speaking to a gathering of special educators, called by the United States Office of Special
Education Programs, Katherine Larson (1994) of the Graduate School of Education,
University of California, Santa Barbara, reported that "many LD and SED students are
afforded greater dignity when they are incarcerated in youth prisons than when enrolled
in schools." Her experience in both schools and in youth detention facilities revealed that
"staff in youth detention facilities are more courteous, more respectful, more
compassionate, upbeat, and more friendly than educators in schools;" a circumstance she
felt was "the result of a negative or adversarial relationship between students and adults
in schools" (p. 8). (See Foxx, 1996, for a profound explanation of how such a thing can
Dr. Sidney Bijou (1988) instructs us that "research has shown that the most effective way
to reduce problem behavior in children is to strengthen desirable behavior through
positive reinforcement rather than trying to weaken undesirable behavior using aversive
and negative processes," (p. 444-451). This is what research has taught us, and this is
what educators must learn to do. There is simply no alternative. So long as the notion
prevails that "severe punishment" is the way to manage behavior, schools will continue to
be coercive environments, and students will be anxious to get away from them, to
perform badly within them, to strike out against them (countercoercion) and to be
disinclined as adults to support them.
We know exactly how to create a positive learning environment where students behave
well to enjoy the positive consequences of behaving well rather than to simply avoid the
negative consequences of behaving badly (Johnson and Layng, 1991). Once teachers
learn to create an environment that is free of coercion, where appropriate behavior is
properly recognized, student behavior will improve, student performance will improve,
and students will remain in school.
I have observed that in classrooms where the ratio of negative to positive interactions is
never greater than one negative interaction to eight positive interactions, the learning
environment tends to be noncoercive and student behavior tends to be appropriate. This is
quite consistent with the recently reported data of Dr. Betty Hart and Dr. Todd Risley
(1995) regarding their research on verbal behavior in families. Low risk homes were
characterized by environments in which parents said five times more positive things to
their children than they did negative things. High risk homes were homes where parents
said twice as many negative things as positive things. The research is clear on this matter!
Teachers have simply got to learn to be much more positive and encouraging than
negative and discouraging.
The literature on positive reinforcement in classroom settings is abundantly clear on this
matter (Eisenberger and Cameron, November, 1996). Our college of education teacher
training programs have simply got to access that literature and teach it to students who
are preparing to become teachers. Contemporary student behaviors are simply too
complex to be dealt with on a trial-and-error, conventional-wisdom, back-to basics basis.
It is irresponsible for our college of education teacher training programs to graduate
students who have not been thoroughly taught how to manage behavior in the classroom
using scientifically sound, positive rather than coercive and aversive, methods. Ignorance
is the parent of coercion. Only those who do not know a better way persist in using
coercive methods to maintain - or attempt to maintain - order in the classroom.
When teachers skillfully acknowledge appropriate behavior using positive verbal and
nonverbal interactions, dramatic things can happen. I observed such an effect while doing
some work for a school district in a nearby state experiencing difficulties in retaining
high-risk students in the regular education classroom. The district served a large
population of high risk students, and was concerned that a disproportionate number of
those students (80%, in fact) were classified early in the school year as mentally retarded,
behaviorally disturbed, socially maladjusted, attention deficit hyperactivity disordered,
and so on. I was asked by the school district to see what could be done to reverse this
problem. After observing in classrooms for a few days, the problem became evident to
me. I found that teachers and their aides were averaging 34 negative interactions during
each class period, while having only 9 positive interactions. I simply taught the teachers
and their aides to reverse their approach to interacting with students by properly paying
attention to the things students did well, while ignoring the inconsequential, annoying
things students did (98% of which could be ignored without problems arising). After
training, teachers and their aides were averaging 167 positive interactions per class period
and only 4 negative interactions. The result was that during the next school year,
placement of students in special education dropped dramatically from 80% to 11%
The ability to do this is a skill that is remarkably characteristic of teachers whose
classrooms are generally devoid of outlandish and inappropriate student behavior, and
where student achievement is high.
Skill #4: The ability to respond noncoercively to inappropriate behavior that is
A. Occasionally students will do things in class that are so disruptive and potentially
dangerous to person and/or property, that they can't be ignored; something has to be done, now.
It has been my experience that such behaviors are rare, spontaneous, and when responded to
properly, are quickly over and instruction continues with only a slight interruption. The
following event exemplifies such a response. It occurred in an alternative high school classroom
while the students were engaged in individual seatwork. The room was quiet as the teacher
circulated among the students.
Without any warning whatsoever, a student leaped to her feet and began wildly cursing
another student she was accusing of "tormenting" her. As I typically do, when assessing
the effects of treating such behaviors, I quickly set my stopwatch to record how long the
disruptive behavior continued, given the teacher's response to it.
To my delight, the teacher retained his professional dignity beautifully. His face
registered not the slightest annoyance. In complete control he approached the enraged girl
and quietly said, calling her by name, "It seems that you are upset about something.
Would you care to tell me about it?" All eyes were glued on these two disparate figures
standing before them, one with face flushed, trembling, loud, profane, and out of control.
The other serene, composed, calm, and quiet. In the presence of such a teacher, the girl,
though trembling and very angry, grew slightly calmer.
Skill #5: The ability to maintain a high rate of risk-free student response opportunities.
I have observed that in classes where students have frequent opportunities to respond free of the
risk of criticism and free of the risk of failure, student behavior problems tend to be minimal, a
circumstance cited in the literature of teaching (Heward, et. al., 1995, and Winter, 1995). It is
what I call a risk-free learning environment. Classroom teachers have reported that in settings
where students are "safely" involved, free of risk, academic success increases as well (Pigford,
Failure is a terrible teacher, and to use it as a teaching tool is simply irresponsible. Certainly, we
all learn from our mistakes and failures, but using failure and mistakes as teaching tools should
be avoided. From the research on precision teaching (Lindsley, 1992), direct instruction (Becker
and Carnine, 1981), mastery learning (Bloom, 1986), and the Personalized System of Instruction
(Lloyd and Lloyd, 1992), is found an immense body of literature on how to establish and
maintain an environment in which students are able to learn free of the risks of failure and
criticism. It is patently irresponsible for education generally, and for teacher education programs
particularly, to ignore what that literature has to teach us!
Skill #6: The ability to serve problem-behavior students in the primary learning
environment (that is, the classroom).
Across the length and breadth of America, I have observed program after program designed to
remove students from classrooms as a means of managing their behavior and of creating an
effective learning environment. Certainly, there are times when a student's unmanageable
behavior becomes so outrageous that it destroys the quality of the learning environment for all
students. In such instances, students would need to be removed from the classroom. But it is my
experience that had regular classroom teachers been taught effective, scientifically-sound
behavior management strategies, the need to remove those students to alternative programs (such
as in-school suspension, time out, expulsion, and so on), would rarely exist in the first place. It is
becoming more and more evident that such programs are functioning as little more than a crutch
for educators' lack of effective behavior management skills.
When out-of-class alternatives are needed for dealing with inappropriately behaving students,
three conditions must be constantly monitored, as follows:
1. Student's in-class behavior should steadily improve. There needs to be solid evidence to verify
that with the use of out-of-class placement options, students are taught to behave better in class.
Simply taking a student out of class to provide relief for the classroom teacher is not sufficient.
2. The need for such programs throughout the school year grows steadily less; i.e. fewer and
fewer students are being referred for out-of-class placement.
3. Teachers' ability to manage student's behavior in the classroom steadily increases; i.e., they
become increasingly more skilled at managing the classroom environment so that the need for
out-of-class placement options steadily declines. In all of my visits to schools across America, in
not one single instance have I ever been shown data (even when requested), which documented
the efficacy of out-of-class placement alternatives. Never! As is typically the case, this is another
approach to shaping our educational programs in a data-free environment; an environment in
which we have our feet planted squarely in midair. It is shameful, indeed.
A basic principle of human behavior teaches us that behavior is largely a product of its
immediate environment. What this means for educators is that students must be taught to behave
well in the environment in which they are most likely to learn what they need to learn. That is,
the classroom. Taking students out of the classroom to teach them to behave appropriately,
without fixing the classroom environment from which they were taken, will only find these
students regressing to their previous level of inappropriate behavior. Something has to change in
the classroom to make it more reinforcing for students to behave well. It is as simple and
straightforward as that!
Skill #7: The ability to avoid being trapped.
Teachers (like parents), tend to get themselves trapped when they attempt to manage the
classroom environment using conventional wisdom, intuition, common sense, coercion, and any
other mythical approach that has no hope for ultimate success. Indeed, these counterproductive
measures typically get teachers trapped into a quagmire of reactive, out-of-control responding
that creates a coercive environment which students want to escape and avoid (Sidman, 1988, p.
Briefly, the following eight traps are the ones I have found during my observations in classrooms
to be the most common:
1. Criticism, meaning finding fault.
2. Sarcasm, meaning to make fun of a student through ridicule.
3. Threats, meaning to warn students of some hostile act by the teacher if the student doesn't
behave better -- quick!
4. Questioning, meaning asking students to explain why they misbehaved.
5. Logic, meaning trying to reason with students in an attempt to improve their
6. Arguing, meaning trying to convince students that the teacher is right and the students are
7. Force: (physical or verbal), meaning to hit, or shout at, students to make them behave.
8. Despair, meaning to portray a sense of hopelessness.
(For a more thorough treatment of these "traps," See Keys to Classroom Management, available
from Glenn I. Latham, Mountain Plains Regional Resource Center, Utah State University,
Logan, UT 84321-9620, (801) 752-0238.)
Skill #8: The ability to manage behavior "scientifically."
As one looks historically at America's attempts to improve education, the emphasis has been on
outcome findings rather than "treatment-outcome research," where the emphasis is on what
produces outcomes (Dubois and Brook, 1988; and Wennberg, 1989). Treatment-outcome
research, characteristic of pharmacology, medicine, and dentistry, for example, looks for
explanations of why a treatment does or does not work.
When the emphasis is only on outcomes, the approach to remediation is to set goals and establish
standards that address those outcomes. Virtually nothing is said in education, in the broad sense,
about how one increases outcomes except to address such broad generalizations as "improving
teaching," "individualizing instruction," "making education available to all students," "decreasing
dropout rates," "reducing violence," and on and on and on (Bateman; Carnine).
It reminds me of when I was a young man in high school playing for my high school golf team.
Our golf coach was also the driving instructor for the high school. He didn't know much about
how to teach driving a car, and he knew absolutely nothing about driving a golf ball. After a
match we had lost but should have won, he said to us, "As you prepare for your next match, you
are all going to have to shave a few strokes off your game. You'll never win the next match
unless you are all able to shoot consistently in the 70s or low 80s. It's going to be a tough match,
so get out there and shave some strokes off your games." We all knew that, but no one asked him
the embarrassing question, "What do you suggest we do to improve our ball-striking ability?" He
had no suggestions before he gave us the charge to improve our games, so he stayed in
comfortable territory where the light was good, sticking with high sounding gestures which we
all knew would improve nothing. The five members of the golf team got together and instructed
one another as to how we could improve our ball-striking ability, which we did, and we won the
next match. We engaged in a form of treatment-outcome research.
As with golf, education is never going to improve until something is done to improve teacher's
ability to teach! High sounding rhetoric in the form of grand, over-arching goals (such as
America 2000) are absolutely not going to improve by one iota how children learn and how
teachers teach! Until education's decision makers begin seriously paying attention to "treatment-
outcome research" rather than outcome research only, nothing will improve (Slavin, 1996, and
Margaret Wang and her associates (December 1993/January 1994) have reminded us of this in
their insightful study entitled "Synthesis of research: What helps students learn." They noted,
"An analysis of fifty years of research reveals that direct influences like classroom management
affect student learning more than indirect influences such as policies" (p. 74). In this study, Dr.
Wang and her associates looked at "relative influences on learning" in an effort to find out what
really improves student performance (i.e., "treatment-outcomes research"). They looked at 28
variables ranging from classroom management to district demographics. It was certainly not
surprising to learn that the very thing that educators spend the great majority of their time doing
in their efforts to improve education -- that is, crafting policies -- was the next to the weakest
influence of all on how well students learned. From the work of Wang and her associates and
others, we can simply come to no other conclusions than that the things that politicians and
education decision makers are spending all of their time on is tantamount to the boy looking for
his lost coin in a place other than where it was lost. We are looking in all the wrong places. In
this regard, Wang and her associates noted, "Unless reorganization and restructuring strongly
affect the direct determinant of learning, they offer little hope of substantial improvement.
Changing policies is unlikely to change practices in classrooms and homes where learning
actually takes place."
It is tragic to realize that the educational establishment is afloat in a sea of knowledge about how
to improve instruction yet refuses to drink of it. It is altogether safe to say that our profession has
a data-base that is so robust and so broadly arrayed that we know exactly how to establish and
maintain an effective learning environment, an environment in which all children can learn to
their potential. We know how to do it, absolutely! But as a profession, we refuse to do it, which
raises the question, "Why not?" This question was asked a few years ago by Dr. Ogden Lindsley
in a provocative article entitled "Why Aren't Effective Teaching Tools Widely Adopted?"
(Lindsley, 1992). In the article, Lindsley notes, "Effective educational methods are available.
They have been available for a long time" (p. 1). He further observes, "The fate of highly
productive educational methods in public instruction is a national shame. No highly effective
educational method or program has ever been widely adopted in North America," which Dr.
Lindsley characterizes as "scandalous" (p. 1).
A few years ago, as a part of a study to which this work is related, I made an attempt to
determine why effective methods of instruction don't get broadly and systemically adopted in
America. Published under the title "The Birth and Death Cycles of Educational Innovation"
(Latham, 1988), I found that change is just too difficult for most teachers to handle. This,
coupled with the lack of any incentive to change, tends to spell doom for any method of
instruction that is different, even though it promises -- with near absolute certainty -- to improve
academic outcomes for students. In fact, as I found in another study I published under the title,
"Mainstreaming: A Victim of Disincentives" (Latham, 1988), not infrequently teachers who
perform particularly well, using effective methods, are the ones who find themselves teaching
the most difficult students in school. Time and time again, while interviewing teachers over the
past 16 years about what needs to be done to improve education in America, including how
teachers teach, I was told that teachers do themselves no great favor when they become
recognized as particularly effective because they soon find that the most difficult to teach and
manage students become placed in their classes.
We know that the most effective approaches to instruction are those which form the foundations
upon which Precision Teaching, Direct Instruction, Mastery Learning, and the Personalized
System of Instruction are built. Given the data-base which supports these approaches to
instruction, for anyone to seriously challenge their effectiveness is tantamount to spitting in the
wind. So why don't we accept them and use them and serve children well with them? With
frustration and anxiety ringing in his words, Dr. Lindsley summed it up this way:
"It is hard to keep your humor when you accept the fact that you invested 25 years in developing
methods that can help your nation out of the educational abyss into which it is racing. You made
these methods inexpensive. You made them clear. You helped illustrate their worth. You made
them attractive. Yet they are ignored or rejected because of popular myth and bigotry" (p. 26).
Therein lies the sum and substance of the answer to his compelling question "Why aren't
effective teaching tools widely adopted?:" "myth and bigotry." Indeed, this is a shameful
circumstance, a circumstance which can be easily and quickly remedied if education will put to
work what works, and will equip teachers with the skills they need -- skills that have been
demonstrated to be effective using "treatment-outcome research" methods.
In time, this document will be expanded into a book preliminarily entitled Behind the
Schoolhouse Door: A Look at Education from Within. It will report in considerable detail the
data from my observations and interviews in those settings where the "coin" is lost. The book
will conclude with specific suggestions about what must be done to reform education the way
education must be reformed.
Despite the endless stream of education reform rhetoric that has invaded humankind's senses for
centuries, education has not been, and is not being, reformed. It has only been, and is only being,
remodeled, redecorated, and embellished.
Recently, while spending the Christmas holiday with our daughter and her family in Detroit, we
visited the Henry Ford Museum. As I studied the evolution of forms of transportation, I was
struck with the sharp contrast between animal-drawn forms of transportation, and transportation
powered by the internal combustion engine. Prior to the paradigm shift from muscle to machine,
so-called advances were little more than trimmings and embellishments: a buckboard with shock
absorbing springs beneath it and padded, upholstered seats; artistically arrayed features, designs,
and dressings; a surrey with a fringe on top; enclosures against the weather and dust, and even
wood-burning heaters. But no matter what was done to beautify and make it more functional it, it
was still a horse-drawn buggy.
And so it is with education. Today, as it has been for centuries, education remains a matter of
telling students what they need to know, assigning them related things to do, testing them on how
much they can recall, then attaching a symbol of some sort as a measure of success or failure. In
the name of reform, decorations, trimmings, and embellishments have adorned education:
individualized instruction (a term without meaning), back-to-basics (education is the only
enterprise I know which is heading into the 21st Century with its eye fixed keenly on the rear
view mirror!), classrooms without walls (a euphemism for an invitation to chaos), graduation
requirements, teacher pay and performance requirements, compliance standards, LRE, and on
No matter what has been, or is being, done in the name of reform, the very essence of education
remains static; essentially no more than a matter of telling students what they need to know,
assigning them related things to do, testing them on how much they can recall, then attaching a
symbol of some sort as a measure of success or failure. The paradigm is paralyzed, and like the
horse and buggy, the best we can hope for is something that looks good -- referred to in scientific
parlance as face validity.
As with transportation's advance to the internal combustion engine, science offers education a
new paradigm, one that is as dramatic as the shift from muscle to machine. It is found in the
literature of education, psychology, and behavior under such headings as "fluency," "free-operant
conditioning," "schedules of reinforcement," " precision teaching," "celeration," "critical learning
outcomes," "learning channels" (not related to TV), "elimination of procedure-imposed ceilings,"
"component-composite relations," and more -- much more (Binder, 1996; Lindsley, 1996; Foxx,
These terms are as foreign to the education establishment of today as was the language of
physics and engineering to the makers of horse-drawn carriages and buggies. But it is the
language of education's future; that is, if education hopes to have a future that is anything more
than an embellished extension of its antiquated past.
More will be said on this matter in my book, "Behind the Schoolhouse Door."
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